I have often thought that people who desire a modern-day gift of prophecy ought to be careful what they wish for. After all, the biblical prophets were often asked to speak words that immediately brought about their own persecution or even death. And even if they did not suffer to quite that degree, they were often asked to speak words that brought sorrow more than hope and alarm more than encouragement. The calling to be a prophet was the calling to speak difficult words and to suffer terrible consequences.
Samuel was just a young lad when God tasked him with being the bearer of bad tidings. God gave Samuel knowledge of events that would soon come to pass and it fell to him to tell old Eli the news—news so bad that “the two ears of everyone who hears it will tingle.” Samuel had to tell Eli that God had said “I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them” (1 Samuel 3:11-13). Eli may have been a good priest and a good mentor, but he was a poor father who had allowed his sons to desecrate the holy things of God.
Samuel dutifully told Eli everything that God had revealed. He hid nothing from him. He told him that God was going to punish his family for their blasphemy, that there was nothing the two evil sons could do to atone for their transgressions. Their sin was so great and their hearts so hard that the punishment of death was both fitting and necessary. God had decreed it, and it would come to pass.
There are any number of ways that Eli could have responded to this announcement. But he responded in the best way possible. “It is the Lord,” he said. “Let him do what seems good to him” (1 Samuel 3:18). Having received the most agonizing news, he responded in faith, he responded in confidence, he responded in submission. He responded in a way that ought to inspire us today.
In our lives it tends to be providence that reveals difficult tidings. Rather than sending prophets to tell us about events in advance, we learn in the moment through the unfolding of the mysteries of God’s will. And we ought to receive the tidings of God through his providence just as humbly as Eli received the tidings of God through his prophet. We ought to receive it with every bit as deep a submission to God’s sovereignty and with every bit as great a confidence in his goodness.
Eli did not lash out at the prophet, at the one God had called to be the bearer of this news. And we must not lash out at providence, for prophets and providence alike simply reveal the will of God.
Eli did not accuse the God who had assigned this most difficult of all providences, for he had deep trust in his character. And we must similarly trust in God’s character and refuse to accuse him of doing wrong or even doing anything less than what best serves his purposes and advances his cause. It is when we trust in his character that we can trust in what he permits and in what he decrees. For his will cannot be separated from his nature, the goodness of his providence from the goodness of his character. We must conclude that if God is good, his will is good, even when we struggle to see it.
Eli did not raise his fist to the heavens, but rather bowed his knee to God. And in just that way, we must not raise a cry of accusation against God, but rather lift a song of praise—even if it is bewildered and broken-hearted praise. We love to praise his name in the light, but by God’s grace we can also praise his name in the darkness. We love to sing songs of rejoicing, but by God’s grace we can also sing songs of lament. For both honor him and bring glory to his name.
Eli’s words, Eli’s actions, Eli’s attitude at the revelation of God’s prophet ought to be ours at the revelation of God’s providence. Though his heart must have been shattered and grieved, Eli loved God and trusted him. Though our hearts may be shattered and grieved, we too must love and trust him. For he is the God who does whatever he pleases, and the God for whom whatever he pleases is good. Of him we must always say, “It is the Lord. Let him do what seems good to him.”